The First Son

I rarely talk about my father because I don’t have a close relationship with him. He was always more or less a fearful and distant figure in the family. Let’s just say there I can probably count in two hands how many times he’s ever smiled or been nice to me, or anyone else in the family, for that matter. But although I can’t excuse his behavior, I do understand why he is the way he is. 

From a very young age, my father has always had this responsibility on his shoulders. The Korean War happened when he was around nine years old in Korean age, eight in western world. His family obviously fled to the south to escape the war and North Koreans. There was no steady home or employment. Although my grandfather was a skilled carpenter, the family subsisted by selling goods on the market, which meant both his parents worked long and rarely paid attention to home life.

As the oldest child, all the responsibility of taking care of his family was put on him. I don’t agree with this Korean custom, and no matter how many times my grandparents and my father say that was the way things were in those times, I actually know it wasn’t. Not really. None of my father’s friends’ families actually behaved this way. Just my family.

No matter the reason for the grave responsibility, it was my father who had to go wash rice in the cold stream with other mothers, who always complimented him on how well behaved he was. He had two younger brothers and a baby sister, the older one who always followed him to his elementary school. As part of poor public school post war, children received small bread and drink while in school. My father’s brother knew that and would stand outside so he could take my father’s bread. Feeling responsible, my father always gave away his bread, knowing his younger brother wouldn’t even share with his other siblings. My father went hungry regardless.

Let’s say such sacrifice has made none of his younger brothers better men, since they are selfish to this day. But that’s perhaps a story reserved for another day.

Growing up like this, my father had to give up his desire to be a farmer and an artist. He became a pharmacist instead, so he could make money. He was smart, so he attended one of the premier pharmacy schools in Seoul (and yes, it is a big deal to attend a university in Seoul for those living outside Seoul). It probably never occurred to him to question what he wanted. 

The family brainwashing essentially had him work immediately after his graduation. It didn’t matter that he got married and had a family of his own. He spent all his earnings providing for his younger siblings and his parents. And yes, what I was told was… that’s the way it was at that time. Also, false statements.

I still laugh (not a funny one) since my mom, who worked full time to provide for her children (my father’s children obviously) and the household, was the only mom who had actually worked at the time. In those days, in most other households, the father actually provided for the family while the mother took care of the children. But my father’s earnings were reserved for “his family”. He supported both his brothers through university. One didn’t even finish since he could have cared less. He supported his sister through studying abroad. And to this day… even when my father is the one who needs help, they’re not the ones who support him.

But even as I don’t agree or excuse him for his behavior, I do understand why…

I just wish he’d stop saying that “It’s the way things were in those days.”

Mother-In-Laws

My childhood memory starts when I was maybe three or four years old. After my maternal grandmother and her daughters moved to the U.S. and stopped living with our family, my paternal grandparents moved in. According to my mother, my grandfather was a kind and gentle man, although he had a bit of a weakness for alcohol. But he was apparently still relatively a gentleman when he was drunk. He apparently loved my mother and through his influence softened his wife’s sharpness toward my mom. 

It’s strange how so many Korean mother-in-laws are nasty to their daughter-in-laws. You’d think they’d swear to be nice to their own daughter-in-laws after experiencing mistreatment from their mother-in-law. But instead of not repeating the mistake, they equally mistreat their own daughter-in-laws. And the cycle continues. Perhaps they are taking revenge for the time they were miserable as a daughter-in-law. Perhaps they don’t know how else to behave, since that’s all they learned.

Thankfully, my paternal grandmother couldn’t treat my mother too badly. My mother was a highly educated woman from a good family and she was also as much of a bread earner as my father was, especially since most of his salary went to supporting his family of origin and my mother’s salary went to pay for supporting our family. Still, my grandmother wasn’t a very kind woman and, at least for the first few years they lived with us, my paternal grandfather was a soft influence on her.

In contrast to what most people would think, my mother was not happy when I got married. I think she was worried about me experiencing so many difficulties she’d faced as a married woman. I can’t count in my two hands how many times my mother packed her bags and grabbed us from school, with the intention of never coming back. Of course, that would never have worked in Korea since women had absolutely no rights then, even a working woman. I sometimes wonder if my mother would have broken the cycle of mother-in-law abuse if one of her children had been born as a man and had gotten married.

Concubine or two

I’ve written about my great grandmother, who was a bit of a child bride. As often it was with arranged marriages, their marriage was… shall I say, the typical marriage of a rich man? Perhaps it’s because the choice was taken away from him, or perhaps he was just a rich man of his time.

My great grandmother did have three children by her husband, including the last child, a boy, who’d died. But my great grandfather was never content with the marriage. I’m told he was rich, tall, handsome, and an incredible singer. Obviously, there would be tons of women following him? And in those days, it was a common practice to have a concubine or two. So that’s what he did. He spent a lot of time with his second wife/concubine and had children with her. Of course, my grandmother knew all about it as she sometimes fetched him home from various concubines’ houses.

Then what happens when there are no sons by the first wife? You adopt the sons of the other wife to be the sons of the first wife. And that’s what happened. Essentially, these sons sort of became the sons of my great grandmother, on paper, of course. And well, that’s where inheritance (if there had been any left after the war) would have gone as well.

And both my grandmother and my mother’s generation all knew of this as they were well acquainted with who my mother called her “uncles”. I suppose in modern times this type of practice would be possibly unthinkable? Boys at any cost? But that was quite common in the olden times. So common that an exorbitant amount of money was spent in bringing back these uncles from the North when the border was nearly closed.

In the end, they were the inheritors of the family legacy, whatever was left of it. Thankfully, they were nice people and exceptionally smart, taking after my great grandfather. I vaguely remember meeting one of them and I always wondered why I had great uncles when my great grandmother didn’t have any sons.

Seaweed Soup

Seaweed soup is a must-have dish. It’s not fancy and easily made so we used to eat it ‌often. All you need is good 미역 (seaweed) and meat broth – and there is plenty of stale seaweed that will make you believe seaweed soup is not good, so beware.

Not sure how much people’s eating habits have changed in Korea these days with westernization, but when I was young, we still had rice, soup and side dishes three meals ago. Obviously, as a child, I often preferred something different. Did I tell you I didn’t even like Gimchee when I was young? That obviously changed now. Now, I crave Gimchee, just not always able to get it.

Although it was a typical dish, the seaweed soup was very important. Usually you must have some on your birthday and after giving birth. Why? Well, the explanation given to me was that it was good for our body, cleanses blood, clears skin, etc. So traditionally when a woman gave birth, it was a must-give. But I suppose not always? That was the case for my maternal grandmother.

She’d given birth to a third daughter, my mother, that is. And her parents-in-law decided to neglect her. Apparently, it was her fault that she didn’t end up having a male child. You probably can’t tell from my writing, but this type of treatment upsets me. And it apparently upset my maternal great grandmother too. Beware of the wrath of mothers! 

So hearing that her daughter was being neglected by her husband’s family – at that time, my grandmother had gone to give birth at her husband’s main family’s house), my great grandmother decided to intervene. She bought expensive seaweed and hired a man on a motorcycle. My grandmother’s husband’s family was extremely well-off and mighty, which meant they had their large main house situated away from the city with large land, and her husband had been studying in the city. On the motorcycle my great grandmother went, and essentially barged into her son-in-law’s house. Then she took charge of the kitchen – trust me, this is not something you do as a woman’s family in those times.

But my grandmother got her seaweed soup, finally after several days.

Snippets in Korean

오늘은 물리치료사한테 가야 해서 하루 휴가를 내기로 했어요. 이상하게 하루 쉬는 것 가지고 인생이 전부 행복해지는 것 같아요.
이럴 때야말로 인생에 대해 다시 곰곰이 생각해 봐야 하는 건가요? 아니면 이것은 그냥 누구에게나 있을 수 있는 지침?
알 수 없는 공허감. 말할 수 없는 그리움.
그렇게 우리는 하루하루를 살아가는군요. 끝까지… 한도 없이… 정처 없이…
사랑이 있으면서도 사랑을 모르고.
아프고 있으면서도 아프지 않은 척.
우정이 무언지 잊어버리고.
마음이 울적할 땐 덮어버리고.
그저 말없이 사라져 버리는…
우리는 모두 홀로서기를 하고 있습니다.

Which hair dye do you use?

My parents run a small neighborhood pharmacy in a residential neighborhood of Seoul. The neighborhood pharmacies in Korea when I was young were not like the pharmacies in America. It primarily served as the first line of defense against the illness for the neighborhood. Hospitals were only places you went if you were truly sick. This was the time before nationalized healthcare, before the battle between pharmacists and doctors (an outcome which you could have guessed, pharmacists lost).

But I digress. I was trying to say, although the pharmacies were primarily where pharmacists prescribed medicine, they did sell some of the other items you might think to find in normal pharmacies in America, like hair dye.

Why do I mention hair dye? Well, I was just reading an article about how Korean women’s hair transformed economy through wigs (https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/women-hair-wigs-south-korea), and it reminded me of how when I was young, my mother was frequently asked by a customer, “What color hair dye do you use? Give me that one.”

My mother has never used a hair dye so you ask why would someone ask that? Because instead of jet black hair that most Koreans are known for, my mother has naturally dark brown hair, which is just slightly wavy, and lots of it. My grandmother on my maternal side was the same way. Long, long dark brown, slightly wavy hair. Both me and my sister have that too. I guess we won the hair lottery since it is heavy, never stops growing (my grandmother had at one point grown it down to her ankle and turned it into a hair ornament for her mother).

I digress again. My mom would sort of smile and recommend a brown hair dye we had on the shelf. I mean, when she first started helping my father out at the pharmacy, she’d tried to explain that it was her natural color, but no one would believe it. So later she’s like, why not? Might as well sell the hair dye.

Why do I bother with this story at all?

First to point out, Korea has always been a society that, as nice as people are, has had a hard time accepting people who are ‌different. And to show how, over the years, we become inured to this push to conform to societal norms, at least outwardly.

Chamberpot

It’s been a while since I blogged. Life… what can I say? And unfortunately, some stories I write in my blog sit a little heavy within me and I sometimes avoid writing. Love and hate relationship, remember? But today, I wanted to write a funny and maybe crass story of my childhood. If you don’t like a bit of bathroom humor, please stop reading now.

So when I was young, despite living in a two-story house with a flushing toilet upstairs (which really was constantly broken), our whole family mostly lived downstairs during the winter. I mean, heating was expensive and, well, families usually slept together in those days. My parents would sleep in another room on the first floor, but grandma, me and my sister would sleep in the slightly bigger room. 

Downstairs rooms did not have a flushing toilet, nor even an attached toilet. Basically, we had 뒷간 (meaning back house, but really means an outhouse with a hole in the ground). So if you wanted to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you’d have to put on some extra clothes, shoes, take a little flashlight and go to this separate structure/room you’d call bathroom. Then you wash your hands as you come back, since the sink is near your room and nowhere near the outhouse.

As a child, I was terrified of falling into the said bathroom, as it was really a giant hole you squat on top of. Especially in the dark, it was even more terrifying since there were many stories of ghosts hanging about in the outhouses. And if you add freezing (-15 C) weather to that, you really didn’t want to go to the bathroom at night. Unfortunately, I always had a tiny bladder.

One evening, my dad was sleeping with us. This is rare since he was a very light sleeper and hated sleeping with others. We were all terrified of waking him up since he got really irritable and angry. Let’s say my bladder was not listening to my fears. It decided that it needed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I didn’t know what to do. If I were to try to go outside, which I didn’t want to, I’d wake up my dad who’d get angry, etc.

So my grandmother came to the rescue… Because the bathroom situation was impossible, she always had this thing called Yo-gang (essentially a chamberpot, but it’s shaped like a round pot made of stainless steel). She said I should use Yo-gang quietly since that would be less likely to wake up dad. Since I was also terrified of going outside in the cold and dark, I was quite happy with her solution.

Dad wouldn’t wake up and I wouldn’t have to go outside.

Let me just say I hadn’t considered one problem…
The sound of pee hitting the stainless steel container.

You can probably guess the ending to the story. My dad jumped up from the loud noise, got angry anyway. Then, he got angrier because grandma had me use the chamberpot which, well, modern people wouldn’t use. 

There’s really no moral to the story except to tell you what honestly happened. The Korea of my childhood was not like the Korea of now. Even living in the middle of the capital city of Seoul, our two story modern house still had an outhouse. We had constant shut off of water so had to install a pump system. Our electricity went out rather often. There was really no hot water to speak of. And well, there was that one chamberpot.

Memory of licorice flavored jelly

Several years ago, I asked my dad what he’d like me to bring from the US. It’s a typical thing, when I visit Korea, I typically try to bring items from the US that my parents want. Initially it was because there were many things here that didn’t exist in Korea, but later, it became more for my parents to be able to tell their friends and acquaintances that their daughter brought something. They are very happy when they can pass out small pieces of dark chocolate, candy or coffee direct from the US.

So when he asked me to bring back black jelly that has something like the fragrance of 5 spices, I was thinking…what is that about? My dad tells me often he doesn’t like sweets (even though he does), but I had no idea what black jelly was. Well…I figured out that it is licorice flavored jelly. 

It seemed like a strange request since I think flavors like licorice or root beer are a bit of an acquired taste. If you aren’t exposed to it when you’re a child, you don’t tend to like it. I personally haven’t been so I don’t like either of them. Licorice flavor isn’t a common thing in Korea (at least up until my childhood) so I was wondering how my dad got exposed and was wanting this? So I bought the best licorice flavored jelly, the more high end kind that’s all natural, etc. When I brought this, he looked at it funny, took a bite and said this is not what he’d asked for. 

At this point, I’m perplexed. Was there some other kind of licorice?

He explained why he wanted this jelly. The memory goes back to post war time. After the war, there really wasn’t much to eat, which means dessert or sweets were not even part of the picture. But my dad remembers the American soldiers he’d met. They’d have these small packages of round flat disk fruit jellies (ones that come in different colors and covered with sugar) that come with their food packages. And the soldiers would often hand these out to the kids they meet. These candies were untold treasures to children and they’d savor them. The reason licorice flavor was what my dad wanted most was that it was not a common one in these packages. So it was like a treasure when he’d get one. 

And even now after so many decades past, my dad is still seeking a little piece of sweet memory, which he could only find in the fake licorice fruit jelly, not the real licorice jelly.

Korean Pop (known as Kpop)

When I was growing up, my primary exposure to music was western classical music. I lived in Korea so sure enough, I’d heard Korean traditional music such as 판소리, or old popular Korean music which my parents labeled 뽕짝… and of course there was Korean pop. But Korean pop of my younger days was much different from what people come to know nowadays. What’s currently known as Kpop and super popular in early days were looked down upon by the older generation. My parents were certainly against it, so they didn’t expose me much to it. I’d say my mom especially was quite against any Korean music. So I learned to play the violin, I had no music collection other than classical.

Let’s say Korea is a land where, if you are different, you are essentially pounded down, shunned, hushed. And Kpop of early days was a bit like that, at least from my vantage. But how crazy that I still held that antiquated view all the way until a year ago. Even when everyone around me would ask about Gangnam Style (강남스타일), I had very little touch with the Korean pop and could not speak much to it…other than the criticism of the south of the river area in Seoul (And full honesty, I’m from north of the river and I agree with the underlying critique). It’s a bit sad that I knew more about the latest Latin, Cuban and Arabic singers than the latest Korean sensations.

Well, that all changed. I’m not sure what prompted me to get into my roots in this area, so to speak, but somehow I started listening to BTS (https://ibighit.com/bts/eng/) and, well, I became an ARMY (that’s what BTS calls their fan). I’m not sure how I became a fan. Maybe it was their song Life Goes On (beautiful lyric) and the impact of pandemic, or maybe it was the way they’re portrayed…honest, caring, true to themselves. 

And maybe my sudden liking of Kpop is more of my liking for this particular band? I have no clue. It could also be that I am now in the middle of my life and looking to reconnect with some parts of my history that I tried to ignore.

As an immigrant, you can’t help but shun just a little bit of your own culture. To assimilate, you push aside everything and try to fit in and move ahead in life. Now that I’ve done all of that, I realized how much of Korean identity I have pushed away. And with this little bit of touch with Korea that has become so global and has run away without me in it, I feel like I am back at the end of the train of Korean identity that’s spreading across the globe.

So what am I doing now? I’m in a Bangtang Academy (https://bangtanacademy.carrd.co/#about) of Korean language learners (yes, there’s an entire discord server of people devoted to learning Korean), leading/guiding a class on Korean culture and conversing with others in Korean, definitely learning so much in the process. In this way perhaps I am connecting to a little piece of my I’d forgotten.

End Of Life

Today, I want to talk about the end of life. Yes, it’s a morbid topic, but it’s what has been swirling in my head as my parents are aging and I am having difficulty talking about it with them because of the cultural divide. So in my family at least and many of the others I’ve observed in Korea, we don’t talk about death. Nothing about end of life can even be brought up because that means you wish your parents to die or something. I’ve been exposed to the importance of end-of-life wishes, care, etc. here in the U.S. so needless to say, I’m incredibly frustrated by this lack of communication.

Normally I’d research why this practice of death as a taboo topic has come about, but at the moment, my frustration blocks me from objectively looking at this. So what do I do? I remembered a fun little folk story that has taught many children in Korea about the importance of elders.

Let me see if I remember the story. The gist is like this.

In an ancient time, there was this thing called Goreyo-Jang. Basically, if a person got too old and frail and couldn’t contribute to the society, they were given a burial so to speak. Old people were rounded up, taken to a cave in the forest somewhere, given some amount of food and left there. They were too frail to come back to their home, so they were literally buried.

There was a high-level official who had an old and frail mother. He loved her so much that he couldn’t bear to do Goreyo-Jang even though he had to. So he hid his mother in the house and spoke to no one about it. Well, this was a time of weakened Korea so a strong neighboring kingdom (guess which one) gave an ultimatum to the king. If he can solve three difficult riddles, then the country would be left alone for its cleverness. If not, the king would have to pay a large sum of money or be prepared to go to a war.

I don’t remember all three riddles, but one of them was that they were given a marble with a hole through it, except the hole was not a straight path but twisted. No one could figure this riddle out except for this high official’s mother, who was old and wise. So when it comes out that he’s been hiding his mother from following the law, the king abolished Goreyo-Jang instead of punishing him. 

Moral of the story I guess is respect your elders. 

And what has this to do with end of life? I have no idea. I just needed distraction from frustration. 🙂

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